Catch up on Art Crank. ‘The poster party for bike people’ UK organiser Chris Verbick grabbed a table in his studio to chat about the show in the US, bringing it to the UK and how he keeps it homely, community-driven and independent. And also pulling couches around the streets of Minneapolis, of course.
Hi Chris. What was the first show in the US like, the first one you took part in?
Chris Verbick: Well, I was at the first show ever in 2007. A friend of mine said “Hey, are you going to this poster thing?” I hadn’t heard anything about it. She said: “Well it’s just in downtown, you should come.” And so I went there and I saw a bunch of my friends and everyone said “Why don’t you have a poster in the show?” and I said why don’t I?”
The 2007 show was just insanity from what I could tell. The venue owner and Charles Yule were expecting 50-100 people to show up and there were maybe 500. So it was packed. You could hardly get through but once i did i was really impressed with the work that I saw. there were some pieces where i was like wow i absolutely have to have that and i went to buy it and they were just like well it’s sold out. so i ended up emailing the artists; Aesthetic Apparatus. he found one and sent it on, and i still have that poster. I still think it’s a fantastic poster.
I’d never seen anything like it. From there I was just really into the idea of it.
I was doing promo posters for some other cycling events I was involved in and at the first show a contact came up to me and was like “This guy runs art crank, you totally have to meet him.” That was in 2008 and that’s when I started to engage with it and said here’s what I’ve done. I did the same thing any other artist does: provide three examples of past work for consideration and to be included in the show. He said “great you’ve got a spot.” That was the start of it all.
And it’s fun. I think if you make the most of the format its not just about making a piece of art, it’s about engaging in the whole thing. so, you are sketching – cause most artists work on the computer – then you’re going onto the computer to build an image with a story, and then i personally think if you make the most of it you are going to a screen printing shop and pulling posters yourself late at night. and thats always how I did it cause I wanted to save money. It’s about doing it cost effectively as well cause it’s a time investment and there’s a small investment in money as an artist no matter what you do. it’s about making connections to people, have a couple of beers and making something.
What was your first show like?
In 2008 I was struggling to find time to work on my poster. I was working a lot. When I did finally find time it was like get into the print shop, call my buddy and get in there. print it starting at midnight, finish around three or four, go home, sleep, go back to work.
There wasn’t really a minute of silence to rest.
Being at my first opening was fantastic. I hadn’t really shown any of my own work. I showed up and someone pinned a rose on my shirt and that meant i was an artist (we don’t really do that quite so much). it was all just so welcoming. i got to talk to other artists, contacts and friends of mine would come up and say ‘I love your poster’ or ‘I really liked your poster but I bought someone else’s’ and I’d say ‘ah that’s fine their poster’s great too!’ so there was also that openness and inclusiveness that I personally still feel it lacking at a lot of art exhibitions and environments. which is in a way why we work to be so, not anti-gallery but non-gallery. we still have to show off art but when it comes to the rest of stuff we’re not going to hand you a glass of champagne and walk you around to tell you how great a piece is when you don’t even know the price. we’re not going to send you home thinking wow that’s beautiful but i can’t have that. we’re about making things as accessible as possible. and when i say things i mean art and accessible transportation. we want to raise the profile of cycling, as say:
“Look. it’s not just a fad. it’s not just a hip thing. There are amazing people around that do this daily and it improves their lives and makes them happier people. maybe it makes them a bit smarter. This is a culture that you should want to be a part of.”
It’s also about taking a piece of art and putting it in front of people so they can actually take it home that night. they can have a glass of wine or beer and they’re not going to feel like they’re completely out of pocket. The artists in our shows should be selling their work for more but as a launch pad we have to help
So when you say it’s less like a gallery, I get the sense it’s much more like a community?
Very much so. Bristol for example a couple of weeks ago was really interesting because it’s a relatively small community and we had some fantastic help from the west of england design forum and there are already connections that exist there. i was seeing people that used to work together and hadn’t seen each other for a year and a half reconnecting and catching up. i’d gone there to speak last summer and i was seeing people that i not only recognised but that i knew on a professional level. as a facilitation of practice and creativity, I think having that more relaxed environment is ideal. You get to circulate and meet people you otherwise might not. Though for my first show, I hung out by my show watching people’s reactions and chatting to people. Some people come from as far as Scotland to check it out.
So then how did you get involved in organising the UK Art Crank shows?
My real passion was in printmaking. I always had to keep that element in what I was doing. When I moved to study here I was like ‘well, I need to have art crank in my life.’
And that’s when I went from being an artist for the show to be a european director of operations (or whatever that title is). and helping the team to build upon what they have, which is a fantastic format but they weren’t able to spread their wings as much as they’d like to. and having a show in London in 2010 was precisely the start of that.
So how quickly did the London one grow? It sounds like in the US it just exploded.
It has exploded. It’s been so exciting and terrifying, the level of interest we’ve had over here. It’s everywhere from Scotland down to Bournemouth to Madrid to I mean.. Italy, Spain, Portugal, Belgium, Germany. Everybody wants to have a show in their town!
So how come you chose Bristol and Manchester?
It starts with community every time. I don’t sit and think ‘there’s a cycling culture there and it’s the third largest city in britain and therefore we should go there because obviously economies of scale so it makes sense.’ It normally starts with someone sending me an email saying ‘I really like what you do’ and saying I really like what you do, how can we work together. Then we have a quick call to see what they want to get out of it. I’ve had events organisers who are like we’ve done this and this and it was massive, and I’m like okay that’s great – but what about the other side of things? That’s not the crucial component. Having the right motivations.
Manchester made sense and Bristol was an easy one because of the ride+design event I’d spoken at during the previous summer.
In the time you’ve been doing Art Crank how’s it changed your perspective on art and cycling communities in the UK?
Like most people in the US I had a period where I didn’t ride at all – and some people don’t ride at all. but it was like you’re young, you learn to drive you stop riding. so i had those 3 years where my bike was gathering dust and i moved to the city and thought i don’t like having to search for parking. this is ridiculous. and i’m sitting at a desk job gaining weight, none of this looks good! So I started riding and fell back in love with it. It was like I was a kid again.
So my progression runs from all the way back then into the now. I think it was 2005/06 when everybody seemed to be really galvanised by this cycling thing and the cycling culture was going crazy. everybody wanted to have a super sweet single gear or fixed gear bike and prices were skyrocketing on old japanese track bike parts. Looking back it almost seems artificial, like it’d become so popular so fast that something had to give. And I think that’s what I’ve seen since then – in reality more people are cycling but the way the culture then – where it was very pretty stuck on the presentation of things, the appearance, ‘this is my thing’, – whereas now that i started riding with during that period, they’ve opened up their world of cycling. so they ride more varied types of bicycles, they use their bikes in completely different ways and i think it’s turned into more of a sustainable sort of engagement. i see that in london, too.
I’m not sure if there’s a better example than arriving here in 2010 when everybody was more into the fixed gear thing. I’d started to step away from that cause i’d started racing, where you had to get a road bike. so i’d started training for longer rides. like ride a lot. way more than i used to.
Cycling was becoming more utilitarian. What demonstrates that best is that we were starting to see more cargo bikes coming out in London for example. (Cargo bike: one that’s designed to carry heavy loads. Like the Copenhagen Bicycle Company that do wooden box cargo bikes that are good for carrying your kids to school. You can fit a lot of stuff on them.)
Now there are more people buying and selling them. In 2010 I wouldn’t even know where to go find a cargo bike. Now there are people buying and selling them. That’s such a dramatic presentation of it because they’re big and a lot of people in London don’t have big houses. So fitting these bikes into a flat shows dedication.
[Tells exciting story about seeing a table being carried around on a bike in Copenhagen]
In Minneapolis, my friends and I used to move house for people with bikes. so you’d have a big couch on a three metre long trailer, sometimes with have someone sitting on it, being hauled by a person on a bike. Or it was two mattresses and a dresser drawers. So it was interesting cause that culture was there when I was in the states and then coming over – there’s no space on these roads! You couldn’t possibly. But people still manage.